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II. Qualitative Research
IV. Street (Fieldwork) Ethnography
VI. Establishing and Enhancing Credibility
Fieldwork has always been a cornerstone of American social science. It was the definitive approach for the first 40 years in its history for the study of social life. It was an intellectual break for “armchair” sociologists who were content with simply theorizing and offering little more than speculative reasoning for the many unparalleled social changes occurring at the time. In these early days, circa 1890 to 1940, fieldwork was both an intellectual movement and a methodological prescription for the sociological analysis of both the community and the individual, with an emphasis on developing a holistic understanding of related social processes. By applying basic anthropological principles, fieldwork in the United States was very much an applied sociological endeavor that has been integral to the evolution of criminology.
II. Qualitative Research
It is rather common for individuals to seek out a “cookbook” approach when attempting to apply qualitative research methods in the field while failing to realize that no method can truly be separated from its philosophical and theoretical underpinnings. In general, researchers are guided by a certain worldview and set of beliefs about exactly how the social world functions, (i.e., a paradigm); specifically, qualitative research embodies an interpretive approach to how one interacts and comes to understand the social world. It is from this particular epistemological standpoint that qualitative researchers view the nature of reality as being something highly interpretive, malleable, and situational (i.e., constructionism). Under this particular ontological view, the subjective is emphasized, research subjects are considered social actors, and the social/ cultural context is paramount in the research enterprise. Unfortunately, individuals seeking “how-to” manuals for qualitative research methods are often perplexed, and at times frustrated, by what seems to be a lack of standardization across the field, leading them to conclude that such methodological steps comprise nothing more than a pseudo–social science. However, the people who make such attributions are often not well versed in its history and/or the impact qualitative research has made throughout the history of the social sciences.
Qualitative research has ubiquitously influenced social science research in the United States for well over 100 years. Throughout the social sciences, qualitative research has been implemented either sequentially (Zimbardo, 1969) or simultaneously (Milgram, 1974) with quantitative designs. Of particular note is the rich history that qualitative methods (e.g., the collection of observational and interview data) share with quantitative (experimental) research designs (see Campbell, 1955; Campbell & Stanley, 1963; Scriven, 1976; Sherman & Strang, 2004).
One can note similar common methodological linkages, especially in related subspecialties, across anthropology, education, communications, urban planning, business, social work, economics, political science, and the health sciences. Of particular note, in terms of American sociology and criminology, are the contributions made, both theoretically and methodologically, by the Chicago School and classical anthropology.
The Chicago School represents a significant cohort of sociologists at the University of Chicago’s department of sociology whose research foci emphasized urban living, deviancy, community/neighborhoods, social structure, social disorganization, social worlds/subcultures, human agency, and social order (see Fine, 1995; Tomasi, 1998). Cohort members of the first Chicago School (roughly from 1892 through the early 1950s) were Albion Small, W. I. Thomas, Louis Wirth, Georg Simmel, Ellisworth Faris, Robert E. Park, and Ernest W. Burgess, along with noted social psychologists George H. Mead, John Dewey, and Charles H. Cooley. Around the same time period, noted anthropologists Margaret Mead, Frank Boas, Ruth Benedict, Gregory Bateson, Edward Evans-Pritchard, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, and Bronislaw Malinowski, whose numerous studies highlighting the use of formal ethnography (fieldwork) as a methodological framework for studying non-Western societies and human behavior in their natural settings redefined the very concept of doing research across the American urban landscape.
The anthropological creed that embodied fieldwork at the time (i.e., the traditional/classical period for ethnography as defined by Denzin & Lincoln, 1994) cast ethnography as research to be done in foreign lands by a lone ethnographer, primarily men, and whose objective was to study exotic cultures, languages, customs, beliefs, and behaviors of “natives.” It was through the systematic collection of observations, interviews, and cultural artifacts that the lone ethnographer would hope to come to understand and explain these bounded cultural systems and ascribed meanings therein while remaining detached, both physically and emotionally, from both the setting and the individuals studied. The admonishment of not “going native,” which was typical for ethnographers of this time period, was instituted to preserve anthropology’s tacit commitment to objectivism and its parochial stance concerning one’s role in the field. However, Chicago School researchers rejected the degree of formalism promoted by anthropological ethnography and sought to implement a form of fieldwork, street ethnography, that encapsulated the social–cultural milieu of Chicago neighborhoods and its residents. A careful reading of some of these earlier works reveals vestiges of interpretive ethnography (Geertz, 1973).
Through a serial combination of life history and case study approaches, from techniques characteristic of the voluminous studies published by members of the first Chicago School to the more germane ethnographies of the second Chicago School (roughly from the mid-1950s through the 1970s), urban ethnography became theoretically eclectic, contextually driven, and analytically sophisticated. Specifically, studies conducted by members of the second Chicago School, including Gary A. Fine, Howard S. Becker, Everett Hughes, Herbert Blumer, William F. Whyte, Erving Goffman, and Anselm Strauss, made significant advancements in terms of theoretical and methodological frameworks. For instance, innovative ways of thinking about qualitative research and edgier attitudes, if you will, concerning fieldwork were promulgated by inter- and transdisciplinary developments in phenonmenology, critical theory, symbolic interactionism, narrative inquiry, ethnomethodology, feminism, focus group research, standpoint epistemology, intersectional theory, interpretive ethnography, naturalism, social action theory, dramaturgical analysis, grounded theory, case study, hermeneutics, and biographical research.
As a result, the intellectual ingenuity and methodological rigor that coalesced during this transformative time for qualitative research in general and for ethnographic (field) research in particular, transfixed American street ethnography for generations of scholars. Moreover, street (urban) ethnography (i.e., fieldwork) throughout American cities was no longer about maintaining relational distance between researcher and researched; the caricature of the classical lone ethnographer was forgotten, and observing social life and interviewing its participants became more of dyadic process.
IV. Street (Fieldwork) Ethnography
American sociology has always had an interest in the marginalized, a “sociology of the underdog” (Becker, 1967) and of the so-called “underworld.” In particular, urban ethnography—or, as it is commonly called, fieldwork— originated in the United States on the basis of a natural curiosity about certain aspects of urban social life and its participants. Urban ethnography’s interest in the “other” during the early part of the 20th century focused on marginalized groups, such as the homeless person, the drug user/addict, the prostitute, the juvenile delinquent and his gang, the immigrant and his family, the pick-pocket and his “fence,” the dancehall girl, and so on, with an expressed objective of developing a theoretical–cultural framework based on an inductive approach to social research while maintaining the often delicate balance between an emic (insider) and etic (outsider) perspective, a balance that over the years has been more a matter of the degree to which it reflects academic politics and culture rather than empirical reality.
For street ethnographers, fieldwork is about working within, giving prominence (a voice) to people who are often characterized and devalued by outsiders as nothing more than street people. The street becomes the ethnographer’s sociological environment; it is a place that holds specific yet dynamic cultural systems, meaning, and practices. The street ethnographer’s working attitude in the field is that of an intimate stranger, a personal confidant to the many people he or she befriends in the field (the street), yet always an outsider because of the research objectives and specific aims that guide him or her. Whereas many people view social life conveniently through partitions such as the legitimate and illegitimate (“under”) world, the legal and illegal (“underground”) economy, and the criminal offender from the law-abiding citizens, street ethnographers recognize a social world that defies linearity in terms of how such worlds are created, practiced, and sustained. For the street ethnographer, social life is more a constellation of behavioral norms and expectations, a social system of differing styles, methods, and modes of communication, all of which reveal a high degree of convergence between seemingly opposing social worlds and its members.
As such, the qualitative task, for most street ethnographers, becomes implementing the most appropriate research practices, such as a research design and method that encourage naturalistic engagement (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), albeit systematically, throughout diverse, “hidden” social worlds, for example, sex workers, drug dealers and users, armed robbers, homeless families, street children, migrant workers, hotel chambermaids, doormen, political dissidents, bouncers, taxicab drivers, and female gang members, to name a few. Therefore, for street ethnographers the research enterprise is best practiced in situ, as it unfolds in and throughout urban social settings.
In addition to an intellectual commitment to building a theoretically and culturally driven understanding of street cultures and a profound, sometimes personal, commitment to providing a voice to the individuals often socially, politically, and economically disenfranchised therein, street ethnographers purposively embrace the complexity inherent in studying people in their natural social settings.
Fieldwork has typically been conducted in an open or nonexperimental environment; the empirical milieu of a street ethnographer has traditionally been any setting, physical or social, where people socialize. However, in the study of deviancy and criminal behavior fieldwork has always focused on the kinds of communities, environments, and people connected with illegal and deviant activities and their concomitant lifestyles. Although the history of deviant/ criminological fieldwork has been diverse in terms of settings and research participants/informants (e.g., street corners, brothels, housing projects, methadone clinics, criminal justice training academies, adult video stores, halfway houses, drug smugglers, psychiatric hospitals, and jails/prisons) an enduring methodological link in the field has been the systematic use of observation and interviewing.
The methodological core of fieldwork has always consisted of participant observation and interviewing. Although it is not uncommon to supplement such work with documentary research, archival data, survey methods, and multimedia techniques (e.g., photography and video), the cornerstone of fieldwork has always rested with the street ethnographer’s interpersonal abilities in and style of collecting observational and interview data while in the field. In general, street ethnographers view the social world through an interpretive/constructionist lens, thereby placing an emphasis on the subjective, the cultural, and the situational. Guided by a philosophical tradition rooted in American pragmatism with linkages in symbolic interaction and phenomenology and a break from naive realism, an idealist– internal ontology, and a healthy obsession for self-reflexivity, street ethnographers engage both a setting and the people therein in their quest to understand those people’s everyday reality. By purposively situating themselves in the local culture of study and by taking a risk in making themselves accessible, both physically and emotionally, street ethnographers strive to create an empirical representation that is as nuanced as life. Through “thick descriptions” (Geertz, 1973) of observed social events, interactions, and individuals’ emotions, street culture is enlivened, defined not by a composite measure, an attitudinal scale, or as a caricature in a journalist’s column but rather by the ethnographer who is trained in the method of observation and its power for preserving in writing observable aspects of the human condition, a condition that is often veiled to outsiders.
The diversity of human experiences in the street is of great importance for the ethnographer. The range of perceptions, the existence of a variety of perspectives, the unspoken as well as what is articulated, and one’s emotional self make up the street ethnographer’s currency. Conversations in the field are never casual or happenstance but are guided and topical and serve as an opportunity to learn more about the research participants. Through the use of interviews, which range in format depending on the research setting and its purpose, the ethnographer presents accounts of lived experiences that, when coupled with field observations, become archetypes of street culture.
Observation in social science research has a longstanding history as an unobtrusive method. In fieldwork, participant observation, however, has had a much shorter yet controversial existence. Its legitimacy as an appropriate data-gathering technique and a methodological approach for creating more ethical dilemmas (see Goode, 1999; Kulick & Wilson, 1995) in the field than not has been reviewed, debated, and at times vehemently defended throughout the social sciences, in particular in the field of anthropology, although such theoretical and methodological introspection did not occur until the 1940s, with a significant treatise concerning participant observation not published until the 1950s. Resolution of such matters should never be expected because of what participant observation embodies, both as a research method and as a theoretical framework for fieldworkers.
The social context has always been the fulcrum for observations in the field. For fieldworkers, the central issues have always been defined around the meaning, practice, and utility in making participant observations in situ. Therefore, participant observation is as much a personal orientation for the fieldworker as it is a professional approach for studying social life. Raymond Gold’s classic 1958 article “Roles in Sociological Field Observations” exemplifies the near-obsessive nature of fieldworkers in their contemplation of the myriad social roles required of the participant observer. Gold’s classic field role typology (complete observer, participant-as-observer, observer-as-participant, and complete participant) should be interpreted not as a static categorical template but as a barometer that enables fieldworkers to make informed choices concerning their own tolerance level for inherent ethical challenges. These challenges are especially heightened when fieldworkers are studying deviant and/or illegal communities and their members, according to the degree of their involvement in the lives of participants, and in relation to other tangential field decisions (e.g. access/entrée, reciprocity, time, confidentiality, personal biography, rapport, resources, etc.) that may impact the scope and duration of the study.
Participant observations are primarily recorded through the use of field notes, a tradition of note taking used for contextualizing field events, meanings, and social interactions. The recording of field notes is a method for preserving the social–physical environment of a study’s setting and its people and heir respective behaviors. It facilitates both the immersion of the fieldworker in the local culture and an understanding of human relationships, in terms of both the researcher and research participants, unfolding in the setting. From jottings to more formal entries consisting of analytical memos, taxonomies, social network mapping, journals, blogs, and video, field notes facilitate the systematic collection and analysis of participant observations. They also offer a medium for preserving the nature of informal, often unscripted field conversations, a rather common occurrence in the field. Field conversations are just another form of interviews that are part and parcel of the fieldworker’s toolkit.
For fieldworkers, understanding how one has lived and managed a life throughout a series of lived experiences is central to the interpretive/constructivist ethos. Qualitative interviewing is paramount in helping the fieldworker tap into these emotional and interpretive (personal) states; it is a dialectical process whereby both the interviewer and interviewee are actively involved in the reconstruction of the past, the accounting for the present, and the foretelling of the future. Qualitative interviewing serves as a guide, if you will, for a skilled qualitative interviewer navigating troubled and/or triumphant stories that are revealed while he or she develops a culturally holistic interpretation of these experiences. Qualitative interviewing therefore becomes an interpersonal journey for all involved.
At a fundamental level, all interviews are, in essence, conversations. In the field, these casual conversations are often a prelude to specific types of themes to be formally explored at a later point in time. Such casual conversations are often useful in developing rapport with prospective interviewees, establishing social boundaries concerning the appropriateness to the setting of certain topics/themes, highlighting potential ethical dilemmas not previously considered, identifying key informants who may later facilitate the recruitment of interviewees, and creating a qualitative interview approach that is appropriate for the research setting, its scope, and the objectives.
Qualitative interviewing can range from a series or combination of open-ended yet topically guided questions to inquiries with more of a substantive frame, such as semi-structured or structured interview protocols. Effective qualitative interviewing rests primarily on the interviewer’s ability to actively listen for content and process, recognizing the impact the wording and sequencing of certain questions may have on the outcome and the use of interview probes in order to encourage dialogue. Typically, with permission from the interviewee, qualitative interviews are audio-recorded in order to develop full verbatim transcriptions of the interaction. However, if an interviewee declines having his or her session audio-recorded, then the fieldworker’s only alternative is to take copious notes. Either way, qualitative interview data are recorded as transcriptions. Transcriptions are the textual representation of a person’s life, a textual approximation, so to speak, of one’s experiences.
VI. Establishing and Enhancing Credibility
In general, qualitative researchers, fieldworkers in particular, obsess about credibility. The heightened focus on authenticity is due both to subject matter and to the dominance of the field by traditional positivist and post-positivist approaches. It is not uncommon for people to have some reservations about the ability of fieldwork to produce theoretically driven explanations; the very nature of fieldwork invites such apprehension. Fortunately, since the mid-1950s, fieldworkers have made great theoretical refinements and have methodologically advanced the field in terms of data management and analysis. Overall, transparency (i.e., being honest and clear about one’s intentions) is a vital step in establishing credibility. Transparency of one’s paradigmatic orientation, theoretical framework, methodological orientation, and choices (i.e., informant and subject selection, sampling design, setting, reciprocity, analytical constructs, etc.), as well as one’s position in the research process enhances credibility by means of the comparability, transferability, and external reliability of the results being reported. The key here is to provide a written account for every decision point in the field. The common use of multiple sources of data, called triangulation—for instance, the use of both participant observation and interviews—also enhances credibility.
The use of multiple researchers (observers), variations of collaborative ethnography, and the introduction of technology to help record and preserve qualitative data has enhanced fieldworkers’ thinking and reporting of internal reliability.
Fieldwork is rather strong in terms of internal validity because of its interpretive orientation, its self-reflexivity, and its emphasis on collecting data in situ. Therefore, data based on participant observation and interviews are strong in terms of internal validity.
Fieldwork, and street ethnography in particular, is most appropriate for studying members of a “hidden” (vulnerable) population. They are hidden in terms of the inherent difficulty in locating them and establishing their true numerical estimates. The difficulty in deriving an accurate population count may be due to their transient nature, their involvement in deviant and/or illegal activities, and/or the fact that the members belong to a “closed” society. Members of a hidden population pose challenges for social researchers because appropriate sampling frames of such prospective respondents are nonexistent, although nonprobability sampling designs (e.g., convenience, snowball/chain referral, maximum variation, criterion based, venue based, extreme or deviant case, and stratified purposeful) offer an alternative. Examples of hard-to-reach groups include the homeless, runaway youth, drug users/addicts, sex workers, gang members, fraternity members, migrant workers, street corner men, people in psychiatric institutions, jail/prison inmates, HIV/AIDS patients, MSMs (men-who-have-sex-with-other-men), WSWs (women-who-have-sex-with-other-women), and transgender individuals.
Fieldwork continues to evolve and redefine itself along epistemic, methodological, and analytic standpoints. Contemporary fieldworkers, called street ethnographers, continue to write about dilemmas in the field concerning process and outcomes. For example, publications on the emotionality of initiating and sustaining a field study are becoming commonplace, largely because of an increased number of relevant publication outlets. Modifications made to traditional nonprobability sampling designs, such as respondent-driven sampling, have created opportunities for collaborative work among street ethnographers and statisticians. Recent technological advances in the area of audio- and video-recording capabilities have transformed how such data are recorded and stored, thereby creating further collaborative opportunities across disciplines (e.g., communications, education, psychology, and sociology). On a related note, qualitative software, which was introduced in the early 1980s, has made great strides in being able to handle and manage an ever-larger assortment of qualitative data, including textual data, video, movies, and so on. Although the use of software for the analysis of qualitative data might seem out of step with fieldwork’s philosophical roots, it is facilitating closer reviews of data integrity and structure, both of which may impact later analysis.
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